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April 24, 2003

Growth! Are We Doomed To Repeat The Past?

Alan Imhoff

What is growth? For some it seems to be a “dirty” word, to be avoided at all costs. For others, it is opportunity to grow their hamburger franchise from one to three locations. For most of us growth is something we know happens, but we generally do not want it to happen too fast.

Some of us don’t want our little children to grow up too soon, “rapid growth”. Others of us wish they would hurry up and move on.

Growth as defined in some dictionaries as regards our children is “full development”, a certain “maturity.” As we use it here in Frederick County and all over the world, growth is “an increase, as in size, number, value or strength.”

So, is growth bad or is it good? What really is “rapid growth”? How do we measure growth to determine whether or not it is meeting our expectations? Probably since the first small collection of people gathered into a confined area, the questions of growth and what they influence were discussed, argued or fought over.

For over 20 years I have had the opportunity to study certain aspects of growth here in Frederick County. For 20 years I have listened to the same arguments by all sides over, and over, and over again. First the “pro-growthers” win the day. Then the tide turns and the “no-growthers” gain the upper hand. Back and forth, election after election the same arguments are floated and one side wins a round, only to be replaced in the next.

(NOTE: These two descriptive words “pro-growthers” and “no-growthers” are used collectively to take into account all the variations of “for” or “against” a certain philosophy on growth.)

Have you ever stopped to really think about what we are doing to ourselves?

Schools are still “overcrowded” despite tremendous amounts of funding for new schools. The same arguments are used year after year in the budget appeals process for every department, division or special interest group to garner more funding, centered predominately on “growth” issues.

If we would finally acknowledge that “growth” is a natural force of the human condition, then maybe we can begin to find real solutions. That as a people, as long as we still want the single family house on the quarter acre lot with two cars in the driveway close to work, these arguments will never change.

The conditions will remain constant, what will change is the degree of magnitude for these conditions, whether it is a tight housing market, or too few dollars chasing too many “wants”.

Over the next several weeks, I will share some thoughts to answer questions on growth posed here today.

Since June of 1988, I have tracked the monthly housing permits according to the Frederick County Permits Department. One interesting statistic drawn from this chart is how many permits were issued during a particular Board of County Commissioner’s term. Is it a true indication of their philosophy on growth?

Stup Board(Partial term 06/88 to12/90)Ave. monthly housing permits: 215
Sundergill Board(Full term 01/91 to 12/94)Ave. monthly housing permits: 174
Hoke Board(Full term 01/95 to 12/98)Ave. monthly housing permits: 161
Gray Board(Full term 01/99 to 12/02)Ave. monthly housing permits: 192
Thompson Board(Partial term 01/03 to 03/03)Ave. monthly housing permits: 106

If we were to use this measure as an indication of whether or not a specific board is “pro-growth” or “no-growth,” is it a good measure?

The Hoke board was chastised as “pro-growth”, yet it had the lowest monthly average for a 4-year period. The Gray board was seen as “no-growth”, yet it has the highest 4-year average. The Sundergill board, also seen as “no-growth” was also higher than the Hoke board. So, are perceptions real or is the measurement system flawed?

Back to the description of growth, “an increase, as in size, number, value or strength,” and how it applies to Frederick County. Growth in size for me means a physical term; the county cannot grow in physical attributes, such as acreage. Growth in numbers is what we most focus on, numbers of people, numbers of houses, numbers of students, etc.

Growth in value is almost always ascribed to property values. Growth in strength is perhaps more difficult to measure, perhaps economic well being in terms of business types and commercial/industrial activity.

We often spend way too much time on the numbers aspect of growth and do not take into account value and strength as much as we should. Leaders should be looking at all three to determine if we are truly bringing balance to a healthy growth policy as we help our county mature. For me, the county is more like a “know-it-all” teenager than a sensible, mature adult. Until we achieve that maturity, I believe we will keep repeating the past 20 years over and over.

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